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Voting Systems

Are our voting systems acceptable? Which systems need to be upgraded or replaced? Punch cards have received the most bad press. Some think we just need to get rid of punch cards. But few realize there are other voting systems as bad as punch cards. And fewer realize that there is a way to greatly improve punch cards. Below are some good articles regarding voting systems. (Except, I have devoted seperate pages to the discussion of Internet Voting and Voting By Mail.)


  • Vote-Trakker - Avante's "Chad-less, Data-Secured, Tamper-Resistant, and Voter-Friendly Electronic Election System".
  • Election Systems and Software - "ES&S designs, develops, manufactures, sells and services hardware and software systems to automate all phases of the voting process for local, state, and national election authorities worldwide."
  • Secret-Ballot Voting Receipts - check out this innovative proposal by David Chaum!


    04/05/2001 "Technology Slashes Detroit Voting Error" (Washington Post)

    "The number of Detroit voters whose ballots were invalidated dropped by almost two-thirds after the city switched from punch-card to optical-scan machines that warn of errors and allow an immediate revote, according to a congressional study to be released today" by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.)

    03/30/2001 "Residual Votes Attributable to Technology: An Assesment of the Reliablilty Of Existing Voting Equipment" (in Adobe Acrobat format) (a Caltech/MIT joint study)

    This is a summary of the findings of a Caltech/MIT joint study, which includes: "The incidence of residual votes is highest for voters in counties using punch cards and electronic machines and is lowest for voters in counties using lever machines, optically scanned paper ballots, and hand-counted paper ballots."

    03/18/2001 "Conflicting studies hamper search for better voting machines" (CNN)

    "Optical scan technology, where voters darken circles as in standardized school tests, has support in Florida, Illinois, Arizona and more. But a Georgia study of optical scan voting found places with large minority populations had much higher numbers of uncounted votes than the rest of the state. Some think computers are the answer. But the latest ATM-style electronic machines turned out errors nearly as often as the punch-cards at the center of the Florida recount, according to a statistical review of the past four presidential elections."

    But, this article fails to mention studies have shown that with on-site scanning for errors, optical scan is the most accurate, but without it - i.e. in jurisdictions where ballots are scanned only after they are taken to a central office - optical scan may produce the highest error rates.

    03/14/2001 "BALLOT MISTAKES RIDDLED CITY VOTING" (Chicago Tribune)

    "Aside from education, officials believe the biggest promise lies in the use of the new error-detection equipment. When an error is detected, the election judge advises the voter of the nature of the possible error and offers the opportunity to cast a new ballot. If the voter declines, the judge presses a button that permits the ballot to drop into a sealed box. The hardware was used for the first time in Chicago in the Feb. 27 special aldermanic election. In the 37th Ward, the error rate in the aldermanic race was slightly more than 1 percent, down from last November's 12 percent-plus. Results were similar in the 17th Ward on the South Side, where the error rate declined to less than 1 percent from more than 9 percent in November." - Note, they are talking about punch cards, not optical scan. It is a little-known fact that error correction technology is availables not only for optical scan, but also for punch cards.

    03/12/2001 "Punch Drunk" (The American Prospect)

    "Some Democrats have argued that punch-card systems need to be replaced by optical scanners, but the Illinois results demonstrate that what really matters is not how votes are entered, but whether there is error correction. ...Some reformers have focused on a different technological fix--direct-recording electronic devices that have touch screens. But these may not even be preferable to punch cards. ...To conclude: In many areas of the country, the best solution may be to add error correction to existing systems, as Chicago did, rather than buy the fanciest technology."

    Also: "When two political scientists, Stephen Knack and Martha Kropf, surveyed existing voter technology to see whether the least accurate machinery is concentrated among minorities and the poor, they found that Florida, where punch-card technology was concentrated among minority voters, was the exception rather than the rule. Knack and Kropf discovered that, nationwide, 31.9 percent of whites and 31.4 percent of blacks live in counties using punch-card technology, and that punch cards are more likely to be found in wealthier counties than in poorer ones--in other words, the very opposite of what many Democrats assume."

    03/12/2001 "2 Florida Counties Show Election Day's Inequities" (Los Angeles Times)

    This is a tale of two counties - physically separated only by a river - but worlds apart in the accuracy of their elections. West of the Ochlockonee River, in Gadsden County, one in eight ballots were rejected last November. Across the river in Leon County, fewer than one in 500 were not counted - and "nearly all were undervotes from people who intentionally abstained in the presidential race." How could such radically different results be achieved in neighboring counties? There were several reasons, voting system technology was one. Both counties use optical-scan technology. But...

  • Gadsden County uses "central-based counting. After polls closed, ballots were collected from the 16 precincts, then fed into an optical scanning machine at the main election office. Because voters were not told if they spoiled a ballot, they could not ask for another try, as the law allows."
  • "Leon County installed tabulating machines in all 95 precincts, not just in one central location. The difference was dramatic. "If you make a mistake here, the machine spits it right out and you take it to the poll worker and are issued another ballot.""

    02/12/2001 "A California County Touches Future of Voting" (New York Times)

    "Riverside County, with 635,000 registered voters, is the largest county in the nation to have converted entirely to touch-screen voting. It spent nearly $14 million on 4,250 machines for its 714 precincts last fall, just in time for the presidential election, and deployed some of them again last week in a special election for a seat in the California Assembly." - And apparently, it worked very well.

    01/28/2001 "Optical Scanners Topped Pregnant Chads as Most Flawed in Florida" (The Los Angeles Times)

    "When Democratic candidate Al Gore challenged the results of the 2000 presidential election in Florida, attention focused on the state's problem-plagued punch-card ballots with their hanging and pregnant chads. But another voting system was even less reliable than the punch cards, the Orlando Sentinel found: an optical scanning system used in 15 of Florida's 67 counties. That system, in which ovals on paper ballots are filled in by pencil and scanned at a central county office, resulted in 5.7% of all ballots being rejected--compared with 3.9% in the counties that used punch cards."

    "The 15 counties all used a voting system that collected paper ballots at each polling place but tabulated them by machine at a single county office. Other counties used similar paper ballots that are fed into an optical scanner at each polling place, with the voter present. If the ballot is mismarked, the machine spits it out so the voter can correct mistakes. In that system, the reject rate is normally less than 1%. But many of the smaller counties say they cannot afford the precinct counters, which cost several thousand dollars each."

    01/28/2001 "The Voting Technology Gap" (The Washington Post)

    Al Gore claimed that "the old and cheap, outdated [voting] machinery is usually found in areas with populations that are of lower income people, minorities, seniors on fixed incomes." Jesse Jackson wrote that "voters in predominantly minority communities had to vote using antiquated machines". However, these popular and politically correct claims are being refuted by "economist Stephen Knack [University of Maryland] and political scientist Martha Kropf [University of Missouri-Kansas City], who have analyzed voting technology across the nation. They found no pattern of discrimination. Instead, they determined that African Americans and the poor were no more likely than whites or more affluent voters to reside in counties that use the much-maligned punch-card machines."

    01/21/2001 "Riverside's Investment in Making the Chad Obsolete" (Los Angeles Times)

    The voting system of the future? - "It is baffling why we cannot count all our ballots precisely and swiftly. But in Riverside County, they do just that. Mischelle Townsend, the county registrar of voters, has installed an electronic voting system that makes it next to impossible for people to vote for the wrong candidate and completely impossible for them to vote for two candidates for the same office. It is the first countywide touchscreen system in the country."

    01/12/2001 "Unisys' Phony Voter Solution" (Forbes)

    "Unisys has no solution. Unisys is, however, willing to invent one once it finds a customer. When Unisys says it's "offering a fully integrated approach to election management," it does not mean it has something specific to offer. It has no product or prototype that is currently available. The lack of substance to the partnership's plans did not prevent Unisys from announcing it yesterday."

    "Florida or no Florida, chad or no chad, the big problem in the election business isn't technology; it's politics. There are about 3,600 counties in the U.S. Companies like Global Election and Hayward, Calif.-based Sequoia Pacific Systems, which do sell voting machines, say the greatest obstacle has been the indifference of county officials. They tend to believe that their systems are good enough. Most companies who have taken a look at this market have gone away, turned off by the lengthy selling process."

    12/28/2000 "2000 Election Data Shows Undervote Rates Consistent Among All Voting Equipment" (press release from Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox)

    "Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox said today that a new statistical analysis of the November 7th, 2000 election results shows consistent rates of 'undervotes' regardless of the type of voting equipment used, and none of the three major systems employed in Georgia counties offers a significant advantage in assuring a full and accurate tally of votes."

    "The Secretary of State’s study found that undervotes (the difference between the number of actual ballots cast and the number of votes recorded in final certified results) in the presidential race showed a statewide mean average of 4.4 %. The mean averages of counties aggregated by voting equipment are: Punch Card: 4.6%, Optical Scan: 4.5% and Lever Machine: 4.2%."

    12/27/2000 "A Racial Gap in Voided Votes" (Washington Post)

    "This election the Republican-dominated state Senate refused to let Cook County use equipment on its new $26 million ballot counting machines that catches many balloting errors. After filling out their ballots, voters feed them into counting machines in the precincts, which spit them out if certain types of mistakes are noted. Voters then get a second chance to cast valid ballots."

    "The Illinois legislature strictly regulates ballot machines, and while it has allowed the kinds of new optical scanners used by DeKalb and McHenry counties to employ the second-chance technology, it hasn't updated the law governing the approved operations of the type of older punch-card equipment Cook County uses."

    "Using the new equipment, DeKalb and McHenry reduced their ballot spoilage rates to 0.3 percent in this election -- a tiny fraction of Cook County's rate."

    12/26/2000 "How well intentioned requirements paved the road to election hell" - By Jim Willard, President, Votation Corp

    Most of the discussion of voting systems has been focused on the deficiencies of the technologies, especially punch-card, but not on the procurement practices that put them in place - and keep them from being replaced. Jim Willard offers a revealing, insider look at an aspect of our election crisis that isn't getting enough attention: "It is not technology, or the lack of it, that caused our recent problems. Rather, a defective voting-business environment." Also, Mr. Willard argues, and I tend to agree, that "voting systems should be procured at the state level and provided to counties equitably."

    Mr. Willard also furnished written testimony (html - doc) to the Florida election reform task force.

    Click here for my opinion on this issue.

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    Last updated 04/07/2002